Following a sold-out run at the Donmar Warehouse, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘Sweat’ is now running for 50 performances only at the West End’s Gielgud Theatre, directed by Lynette Linton.
Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, the play follows a community whose friendships are ruptured when de-industrialisation sets in, with ultimately tragic consequences.
The play deftly flits back and forth between the year 2000 and 2008, as the characters’ past is intertwined with a future exposing the consequences of their actions. With each new scene, news headlines flash across a steel beam of the set, contextualising the play by establishing the current social, economic, even the political, climate, highlighting the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and the tumbling US employment rate, which hits a 30 year low at just 3.9%.
The production is littered with magnificent performances, all of which walk a fine line between nuanced humour and blazing emotional intensity. The cast’s sincere performances skilfully capture the disaffection, fury and shame of the working class, as emotions run high and tensions simmer.
Martha Plimpton’s fierce Tracey has given 26 years of her life to the steel plant, so when she gets wind of change from within the company, she stands her ground, refusing to go down without a fight. Her girt, determination and brazen strength admirable, she becomes deaf to the desperate reasoning of best friend Cynthia, and encourages her son to take the same stand as herself, unaware of the damage this will do. Early on in the play, Tracey tells Oscar of her heritage, speaking of her grandfather, a craftsman, who built the house she lives in. She says that he was respected for his gift, a gift unlike that nowadays. She explains that he had workers’ hands, sturdy, solid and firm, and that one only had to shake hands with him to feel his presence, his power. His hands became an identifying mark, a physical manifestation, a representation, of his craftsmanship. Tracey then tells Oscar that Olstead is “not for you”. There is a damaging air of supremacy here, and this is shared by her son Jason who, when we see him in the play’s 2008 scenes, has a swastika tattoo, among others, on his face.
Clare Perkins’ enduring Cynthia has worked extremely hard during her 24 years at the plant, and like many others, suffers from several physical complaints as a result of standing for 10 hours every day. Unlike the others, however, she has also had to suffer racism. She is promoted to Warehouse Supervisor after applying for a long awaited opportunity such as this. Her coworkers assume her race to be the reason she was offered the position, so that the company can be seen to support minority groups. She comes to believe that she is merely a scapegoat for the decisions made by management. Her new role puts her in an extremely difficult position, almost unbearable when she is forced to lock her friends, lock her son, out of the plant. However, steadfastly on their side, not having lost sight of where she herself came from, she believes that her new role is advantageous for all, and it is from here, and only here, that she can fight for the welfare of her friends and coworkers. As she declares, “one of us has to be left standing to fight”.
Leanne Best’s frequently-drunk Jessie often seems detached from the goings-on around her, as she sits at a bar table, face-planting its surface. However, a working class woman, she is greatly affected by the restructuring at the plant. She tells us that, when she was younger, believing she would only be at Olstead’s plant for 8 or 9 months, she planned to travel with a boyfriend of the time, Felix. They had planned to go to Alaska, and then to India, upon which Jessie reeled off a list of locations, explaining that she would say them aloud to herself every night before bed, like a sort of mantra. Her eyes brighten at the thought of her former hope of possibility. Once she started work, however, she got caught up, swept away in a riptide, and couldn’t get back to shore.
Patrick Gibson’s Jason mirrors the blind fury of a society cheated by those made untouchable by power and wealth. Friend Chris, played by Osy Ikhile, is more reasonable, more moral, and is quicker to feel guilty for his actions. However, he too becomes incited to anger, and joins Jason in a physical demonstration of their rage and fury.
Wil Johnson’s Brucie is a devastating example of what becomes of those who get ‘locked out’. Brucie has been locked out of his textile plant for a total of 93 weeks. In this time, he has resorted to drink, drugs, and even theft. This is the pitiful shell of a man who “went through hell when his plant locked him out”, and now rails that he doesn’t know what to do, by which we understand that he no longer sees the point of his life.
Stuart McQuarrie’s barman Stan is understanding, a good listener, who hears all sides when the plant workers talk to him, maintaining neutral territory and trying not to take sides. He is friendly and good-natured, and ends up getting seriously hurt, both physically and mentally, for stepping in to save colleague Oscar.
Sebastián Capitán Viveros is bar-hand Oscar. A Latino man, he is almost invisible to the workers who frequent the bar, and quietly goes about his business,s focused, but all the while watching and listening. Struggling to make ends meet, he picks up a few morning shifts at the steel plant after its regular workers have been locked out, and is treated appallingly as a result, with Tracey, Jessie and Jason hurling derogatory language and threats at him, when all he is doing is trying to make a living.
Sule Rimi’s parole officer Evan is refreshingly honest and straight-talking, telling both Jason and Chris, not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear in order to integrate back into a society that will have changed in their absence.
Most of the action takes place within an all-American bar. It is, to a degree, vibrant and colourful. With photographs adorning the back wall, this is the place that workers come together to talk and drink. It is where birthdays are celebrated. It is the setting for a community, close-knit, a refuge for many. It is impossible not to notice the expanse of the wider set, which has a distinct factory-feel to it, a mechanical quality. Just as noticeable is the rust that coats it, as though from disuse. Although the play does not technically take place from within the factory itself, we are compelled to acknowledge that the factory, this constant topic of conversation, is a very real presence, an industrial being, one that envelops the ensuing action and the characters, becoming as a hallmark of their lives, characters for whom this factory is a permanent and invading feature of the lives, a way of life itself.
The final scenes of the play are hugely climatic, one in particular explosive, as the tensions of this community reach boiling point. A fight ensues, which may be seen as a metaphor for the lives of these characters – one long, brutal fight, a struggle to survive as blow after blow is dealt, its force unstoppable, just like the change that is coming.
A searing look at the human cost of de-industrialisation, ‘Sweat’ exposes the devastating emotional and crippling physical effects that a struggling economy can have on a society for whom their work is their way of life, essential to their survival, examining the division and tragedy that arises as a result.